History of Chicken Tetrazzini

Food, Hometown Cooking
on September 16, 2010
Mark Boughton Photography/Teresa Blackburn Styling

There is something about opera singers that sends chefs scurrying to their stoves. It happened in 1892, when Auguste Escoffier, chef extraordinaire at the Savoy Hotel in London, was so taken with Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba that he created Peach Melba, an ice cream sundae with peaches and raspberries.

It happened again in Baltimore in 1987, when Luciano Pavarotti was in town to sing with the Baltimore Opera Company. At the tenor's request, Mimmo Cricchio, late chef/owner of Da Mimmo in the city's Little Italy, tossed together a tortellini dish with roasted peppers and dill. Pavarotti loved the dish, and whenever he was in town, he booked a table at the restaurant to eat Tortellini Pavarotti.

Chicken Tetrazzini, too, is connected to a singer. Food historians say the dish was created in San Francisco and named for Luisa Tetrazzini, an enormously popular soprano in the early 20th century. It's a real crowd pleaser of a casserole with a layer of spaghetti covered with creamed chicken and mushrooms and topped with a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Although the dish was named for Luisa Tetrazzini, it's not clear that she ever ate it. She once wrote, "I like the plainest food . . . consoling myself with fruit and fresh vegetables." It's possible Madame Tetrazzini didn't know what she was missing.

Story and recipe by Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.